The above pejorative term for a country run as business for private profit, shared between the State and favoured monopolies, was first coined by the American writer O. Henry in 1904.
Take a wild guess – which country is the biggest producers of bananas in the world and is also the highest capital city in the world? (provided you don’t count La Paz in Bolivia, which is only the seat of government and not it’s constitutional capital). Bingo! Quito, at 2850 metres (or 9350 feet) above sea level, is the national capital of Ecuador.
Arriving late at night in Quito, via Panama from Havana, the last thing I expected was to be pulled out of line by customs as I strolled through. Politely but very insistently, they went through my bag with a fine toothcomb, checking the lining and the straps fairly thoroughly and insisting on seeing how much money I was carrying. No hassle, just an hour delay or so but in repacking my bag, I forgot my jar of vitamins! Quito seems a different ball game with fast, free wifi at the airport and hair-dryers in the hotel bathroom!
At about 2800 metres above sea level it is lovely and cool, compared to Cuba. What that also means is that it is a little hard to breathe, with not enough oxygen, for me, anyway, so I had to walk very slowly but even then I was panting a bit. Radically different too from Havana – market stalls here in Quito have more stock than entire shops did in Havana.
Surrounded by some active volcanoes, the air fresh and light I took a cable car up to 4100 metres and then tried to continue up hill on foot for another 45 minutes or so, each breath a rasp on the lungs hungrily sucking in the oxygen. Active volcanoes ringed this amazing city but I began to feel light-headed and aching so back down to the city level at about 2800 metres and into the Archbishop’s palace for a refreshing ale.
Staying in the historic centre which is beautiful and substantial – the old Spaniards knew how to build to last, or at least they made sure their slaves did so. Despite staying in the centre of the old historic part of Quito and asking policemen and newspaper sellers and other sundry hop-off-my-thumbs, I could not find a bar. All the bars and nightlife are tucked away in a different part of this vast city apparently and I need to take a taxi to “la zona rosa” for a refreshing beer. Luckily taxis are cheap, the flag fall starts at .50 U.S. cents and most rides cost less an 3 dollars!
Going into a bar just opening up for the evening trade, Dieter, the manager and part-owner of the bar was proud of his Spanish. From Jo’Burg, he told me with a strong South Africa accent, he had only been in Ecuador a short time when he had been mugged and had both his ankles broken. During his convalescence he had met Rosa his fiancé and it was with her father’s help that he was now part owner of a bar, he boasted. Insisting I try a local speciality, be busied himself preparing a Michelada – a salt encrusted beer mug filled with lager, lime juice, tomato juice, hot sauce and then decorated with an olive. Hmm.
Moving on to another bar, looking for a place to pass on my illegal tender, I found a busy corner place, dimly-lit both inside and out where the service appeared casual and lackadaisical among the young and carefree crowd. Ordering a jug of Margarita, knowing the twenty bucks would more than cover it, leaving a generous tip for the server, I sat back to enjoy the scene. Leaving the note protruding from the payment wallet tossed down on the table beside the empty jug, I slipped around the corner and into a taxi.
Leaving Quito tomorrow by bus and heading down to sea level to a fishing village called Canoa to get a beach bungalow and enjoy some beach life for a while. I am looking forward to the bus trip tomorrow down through the mountains. How the Spanish ever found their way up here in the first place is absolutely amazing. And then to build not just one but several mighty cities, and all under the control of less than 500 native Spaniards?
Dr. Denny, an American expat ran a seriously minimalist backpacker place just off the beach. Lurching slightly and gesturing with a beer bottle, he inducted me into Ecuadorian essentials. Wearing a stiletto on a chain around his neck, he showed me how he dealt with anyone trying to put any muscle on him, half pulling the stiletto out of its up-side down sheath on his chest. “It’s all they understand, man”, he assured me, explaining that everyone in Ecuador distrusts everyone else so that their taxis all have webcams and red panic buttons for both drivers and passengers. Sundays were dry, with no booze on sale, he warned me before solemnly leading me over to a shed in a corner of his property. Removing a heavy padlock he threw open the door to reveal a rough and ready bar with a shuttered window giving onto the side road.
I am still always surprised when a season is actually given precise start and end dates. Summer officially ends on the first Monday of September with a suddenly barren beach, everything shuttered and closed down and the sea no longer looking inviting. Chasing the sun, further south to Puerto Lopez and on down the coast to a bigger beach resort – Montañita – but while there were still cafes and hotels open, what would have been loud and bustling now seemed tawdry and shonky.
Intrigued by the sound of “why I kill” I moved on again, inland and east to Guayaquil – but found it dull despite its reputation for being a dangerous city – thank God!
Early the next morning my bus laboured up into the mountains to Cuenca, 2600 metres above the beaches. In a high valley, surrounded by mountains, small rivers, with solid stone bridges, sectioned the town. Refreshingly cool and sunny during the day but chilly at night, Cuenca is famous for its reviving use of chocolate in both drinks and cooking, and, left breathless after wandering over a local zoo spread over half a mountain, I determined to try chicken in chocolate as I sipped hot chocolate with cafe liquor – didn’t know that chocolate was a big speciality. Things seemed much cheaper here in the mountains compared to the lowlands so I thought I might stay for a few days before contemplating the next onward stage.
One attempt, so far, at a partial mugging in Cuenca and I just laughed and pushed a bit out of the danger. A barmaid in one of the pubs I stopped off to have a quiet drink in, warned me not to go near a certain corner nearby because, she said, there is always trouble there. Not knowing the area anyway, I blithely paid no attention to her directions of how to avoid that particular spot. When I eventually left to look for a late dinner, I almost immediately came to a corner where a group of young toughs moved meaningfully to block me as I approached. Without slowing down or faltering in any way, I grinned and nodded maniacally at them as I brushed through them and kept going. No harm done to them or me.